Restoration And Acquisition Of An 1837 Portrait Of The Enslaved Child By The Met
Art possesses a remarkable capacity to transcend time, preserving narratives that resonate across generations. In a poignant example of this phenomenon, the restoration and acquisition of an 1837 portrait of the enslaved child by the Metwas done recently.
This act serves as a testament to art's power to reclaim obscured narratives, as the portrait, concealed under layers of overpainting for over a century, has finally been returned to its original state. This endeavor not only highlights Bélizaire's life but also provokes reflection on history, identity, and justice.
A unique 19th-century image of an enslaved person was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, bringing back into view a small boy of mixed races who had been virtually erased from history for over a century. This fall, it will be on display in the American Wing of the museum.
The painting, credited to the French-born, New Orleans-based artist Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans, is a rare example of an independent portrayal of a slave and their master's family.
A painting of Frederick Frey's three white children and an enslaved Black child was ordered around 1837 by the German-born Louisianan. Years later, a family member covered the boy's image while leaving the other three unaltered.
Experts have now returned the picture to its original condition, exposing the young slaves who had been erased from history. This September, it will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Last Monday, the museum announced that it had purchased the painting, which it referred to in a statement as "one of the rarest and most fully documented American portraits of a Black individual depicted with the family of his white enslaver."
Visitors to the Met's American Wing will soon be able to view the restored artwork firsthand. In that location, the artwork's presence will be "transformative," according to the statement from the wing's curator, Sylvia Yount.
The painting, titled Bélizaire and the Frey Children, is the wing's “first naturalistic portrait of a named Black subject set in a Southern landscape, a work that allows us to address many collection absences and asymmetries,”according to the curator.
The voyage of the portrait is a long and difficult one. Frey, a banker and trader who resided in New Orleans' French Quarter, commissioned Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans, a French neoclassical painter, to create a portrait of his three children: Elizabeth, Léontine, and Frederick Jr. A fourth figure, a boy leaning against a tree in the background, was also depicted in the artwork.
The family possessed several slaves, according to Alexandra Eaton of the New York Times. One of them was the 15-year-old Bélizaire who is depicted in the painting and is most likely employed as the Frey kids' caregiver.
The painting, according to Sarah Cascone's article for Artnet, shows "surprising intimacy between the four children, suggesting that Bélizaire was a valued member of the household, despite his enslaved status."
Although it is unclear why Bélizaire was later painted over and who ordered the erasure, scholars believe it took place during the Jim Crow era. However, a tiny shadow suggested that the painting may have formerly included a fourth person when Audrey Grasser, the great-great granddaughter of Coralie Frey, Frederick's wife, donated the picture to the New Orleans Museum of Art in the 1970s. She informed the museum that she thought the figure represented a youngster in slavery.
The picture was altered and maintained by the museum in storage until 2005, when it was auctioned off for $7,200. Bélizaire is once more visible in the portrait thanks to the buyer's restoration work.
The item was located and acquired by Louisiana art and antiques dealer Jeremy K. Simien in 2021, who then restored it once more. In order to learn more about it, he also collaborated with Louisiana historian Katy Morlas Shannon.
She was able to identify every person in the photograph using property and census information, including Bélizaire, who she discovered was born in 1822.
According to Simien:
The fact that he was covered up haunted me.- Jeremy K. Simien
According to the records, the Frey family had bought Sally and Bélizaire when they were both 6 years old. In 1856, they traded him to the Evergreen Plantation. After that, it is unknown what happened to him.
Simien intended the object to ultimately be housed in a museum, and now that the Met has acquired it, his wish has come true.
He tells Doug MacCash of the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate:
The aura was too great to be in a private collection. I had a duty to place it somewhere … where it wouldn’t be forgotten again.- Jeremy K. Simien
In the 19th century, portraiture was a powerful medium for conveying not only an individual's likeness but also their social standing, affiliations, and values. This portrait, commissioned by an artist steeped in history, was intended to depict Bélizaire as an enslaved individual within his owner's family context. However, over time, the narrative around the portrait evolved, reflecting the broader societal shift in perspectives.
Overpainting, a technique commonly used to modify or erase elements from an artwork, played a pivotal role in Bélizaire's story. As history transformed, so did the portrait's narrative.
The choice to obscure Bélizaire's image through overpainting becomes a metaphor for the broader historical tendency to suppress the voices of the marginalized. In this case, it represents the silencing of countless voices deemed insignificant within prevailing power structures.
The restoration of the portrait signifies a powerful act of reclamation. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, committed to uncovering obscured histories, chose to strip away the layers of overpainting to reveal Bélizaire's face. This act resurrects his identity, rendering visible a face that was once hidden from the world—a face that encapsulates the stories of countless individuals whose experiences were systematically erased.
The restoration and acquisition of an 1837 portrait of the enslaved child by the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) is a victory in both art preservation and historical representation. The museum's dedication in acquiring the artwork acknowledges the importance of narratives that were once lost or hidden.
In a world where historical narratives can be curated to emphasize certain perspectives, the museum's choice to acquire Bélizaire's portrait is a testament to their commitment to confronting uncomfortable truths and disrupting established narratives.
Beyond the confines of canvas, Bélizaire's portrait serves as a catalyst for dialogues about representation, identity, and institutional responsibility. The restored portrait invites viewers to reflect on the legacy of slavery, the lives scarred by its cruelties, and the far-reaching implications of historical injustices in today's society. It becomes a bridge connecting past and present, inviting discussions that transcend time.
‘His Name Was Bélizaire’: Rare Portrait of Enslaved Child Arrives at the Met
The restoration and acquisition of the 1837 portrait of the enslaved child Bélizaire by the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds profound significance in the realm of both art and history. This portrait, concealed for over a century under layers of overpainting, now stands as a poignant symbol of historical reclamation and serves as a powerful catalyst for meaningful reflection on the past.
At its core, Bélizaire's portrait encapsulates a hidden narrative that echoes the experiences of countless marginalized individuals whose voices have been systematically silenced. By bringing this narrative to light, the restoration of the portrait acts as an act of justice, reclaiming the agency and identity that history had sought to erase. Bélizaire's face, now unveiled, serves as a testament to the resilience and strength of those who were historically oppressed and provides a tangible connection to a past that often remains shrouded in obscurity.
The impact of this restoration reverberates beyond the confines of the art world. Bélizaire's portrait becomes a profound tool for education and conversation. It invites us to confront the uncomfortable truths of history, acknowledging the brutal realities of slavery while challenging sanitized narratives that have perpetuated over time. As viewers engage with the portrait, they are compelled to reckon with the complex interplay of power, agency, and identity—a reckoning that extends to contemporary discussions on social justice and equality.
Moreover, Bélizaire's portrait serves as a mirror reflecting the progress and challenges society has faced since the 19th century. The act of obscuring his image through overpainting mirrors historical efforts to erase the stories of the marginalized, a practice that unfortunately persists to this day. By restoring his face, the Met reasserts the importance of acknowledging hidden narratives, acknowledging the wrongs of the past, and taking active steps towards a more inclusive and just future.
In the broader context of artistic integrity, the restoration of Bélizaire's portrait is a testament to the commitment of institutions to honor truth and authenticity. The decision to undertake such a restoration process was a demonstration of the Met's dedication to confronting uncomfortable aspects of history head-on, regardless of the challenges it presented. This dedication exemplifies the role that art and museums play in shaping the collective memory of a society.
Who Is The Subject Of The 1837 Portrait That Was Recently Restored And Acquired By The Metropolitan Museum Of Art?
The subject of the 1837 portrait that was recently restored and acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a 15-year-old enslaved child named Bélizaire.
The portrait of Bélizaire was obscured by overpainting for a century as a deliberate attempt to erase his identity and story. Overpainting was used to hide his presence, reflecting a broader societal tendency to suppress the narratives of marginalized individuals.
What Is The Significance Of The Restoration And Acquisition Of The 1837 Portrait Of Bélizaire By The Met?
The restoration and acquisition of the 1837 portrait of Bélizaire by the Met hold profound significance. The restoration unveiled a hidden narrative of an enslaved individual, challenging historical erasure and giving voice to marginalized stories. The acquisition reflects the museum's commitment to confronting uncomfortable truths and providing a platform for underrepresented histories.
The portrait of Bélizaire serves as a catalyst for discussions about historical injustices, representation, and identity. It prompts viewers to reflect on the legacy of slavery, the silenced voices of the past, and the ways in which history continues to impact contemporary society.
The restoration of the 1837 portrait of Bélizaire conveys a powerful message about the interplay between art and history. It emphasizes the importance of uncovering obscured narratives, challenging established historical narratives, and acknowledging the lives and stories of marginalized individuals.
The restoration and acquisition of an 1837 portrait of the enslaved child by the Met underscores historical reclamation and artistic integrity.
Bélizaire's countenance, once obscured, now confronts the world, a poignant reminder of the silenced narratives of the past. The Met's pursuit of obscured histories is more than preservation; it's a stance against historical erasure and a call to uphold truth, justice, and inclusivity in historical representation.